In dealing with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Canada trails behind other developed countries

February 6, is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Flora Terah with Mississauga mayor Bobbie Crombie. Flora Terah with Mississauga mayor Bobbie Crombie at a KCO award ceremony. Photo / Courtesy

By Flora Terah for Wakenya Canada

On International Day of the Girl Child 2016, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, wife of Canada’s Prime Minister, opened the trading day at the Toronto Stock Exchange surrounded by girls, to demonstrate how important it is for girls to have equal opportunities as boys..

In 2015,  the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister, Carolyn Bennette announced the first steps her government was going to take regarding the missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW).

On another occasion Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould was quoted saying “The Girls born in our indigenous communities are three times more likely to experience violent crime. The extent of violence against indigenous women and girls is not an indigenous problem. It’s not simply a women’s issue. It is a national tragedy that requires an urgent and deliberate national response. Over and over for decades, indigenous women and girls have gone missing, have been murdered, and have been left to grief without answers.”

I want to address the issue of survivors of Female Genital also referred to as Female genital Cutting.  February 6, is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.

These are all prominent Canadian leaders focusing the eyes of a nation on women/girls issues. These addresses though did not mention the thousands of Canadian girls that are currently without a voice, children who have no place to go for help and no one to talk to. They are not even an official statistic because no one has bothered to try to figure out who and how many of them there are.

We are talking about Canadian girls who are either at risk, or have survived the harmful tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM) in which part, or all of the external genitalia are removed.  There are no benefits to FGM, only harm ―physical, emotional, and psychological.

The latest estimates show there are at least 200 million girls and women in the world who have gone through FGM, most from Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.  Many of them emigrated, and are now living in the West.

Although there are no official statistics about the incidence of it here, what can be gleaned from the 2011 Canadian Census and UNICEF’s statistics on the prevalence of FGM in affected countries, is that with the recent waves of immigration, there are probably upwards of 80,000 survivors – women and girls – living in Canada, and potentially many other girls at risk now and in the future here in Canada. The numbers keep going up every year. Yet this is not being talked about, not being addressed here in any significant way, by the medical community, the political community, the government, or civil society.

“Who can I talk to, who can I tell?” Serat (not her real name) asks. The Ontario girl came here as a child from the Horn of Africa.  When she went back on holiday at the age of 14, she was brutally mutilated by a woman with a razor blade in a mud hut.  She is still devastated. This was revealed during an interview with Giselle Portnier, a Canadian film maker who presently doing a film on FGM.

No one knows how many other Canadian girls have suffered the same fate, but with so many immigrants from countries where mutilation is the norm, she is almost certainly not the only one. Serat says she feels completely isolated. “There’s a complete wall of silence around this issue in Canada.” she says.

It’s quite a different picture elsewhere in the Western World, where countries are finally taking active steps to identify the size of the problem and address it in significant ways.

In the UK, where statistics show that there are an estimated 137,000 women and girls who have gone through FGM, 14-year-old Fahma Mohammed launched a petition in 2014 demanding that the Education Secretary write to all schools reminding them of their duty to safeguard girls from mutilation.  In just three weeks, the petition got 250,000 signatures.

Fahma’s campaign eventually culminated in compulsory training for public sector workers like teachers, doctors and social workers, who have learned how to identify and assist girls at risk.  For two years now it’s also been a requirement for health care workers in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and mental health centres to collect data on FGM. Border guards are trained to spot potential victims being taken abroad for cutting, and there are numerous organizations and help lines for survivors.

The French have taken a zero tolerance toward FGM, an approach that has seen around 100 people jailed in high-profile cases.  Linda Weil Curiel, a French lawyer who has brought perpetrators to justice, told England’s Guardian newspaper “We have a triple approach, prevention through education, shaming with publicity, and legal punishment. It seems to work.”

There have also been trials in other European countries―Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands among them.

Australia had its first successful prosecution this year. They also have specialist health care services for survivors in every state and territory, support groups throughout the country, and a dedicated FGM hotline.

Our neighbour to the South – in 2016 the U.S. unveiled plans to ramp up efforts to end FGM.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. who have either already undergone the procedure or are at risk of undergoing FGM.  Jana Dukureh, a survivor and the founder of the US-based anti-FGM organization Safe Hands for Girls, said in a recent statement ‘We need to do more and we need to support survivors already here.”  President Obama, on a visit to Kenya, said FGM has no place in the 21st Century.

As for Canada – in 1997 Parliament amended the Criminal Code to prohibit any form of female genital mutilation, including taking a child outside of Canada for the procedure.  That was 19 years ago, and there has not been a single prosecution for FGM here. There are no clinics for survivors, no special help lines, no support groups, and no education or organizations specifically dedicated to deal with FGM. So survivors, many of them young girls, continue to suffer in silence, and girls fearing mutilation have nowhere to turn.

Julia Lalla-Maharajh, founder of the Orchid Project in England, a charity that works to end FGM, says she is “shocked by the silence amongst the community and civil society in Canada”. Lalla -Maharajh recently came to Ottawa with British Somali activist and FGM survivor Hibo Wardere to encourage the Canadian government to address the issue of FGM here, and start investing in the fight to end the practice world-wide.  She says she was encouraged by the commitment shown by Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister for International Development and La Francophonie, who attended an awareness-raising event sponsored by Orchid and Islamic Relief Canada. In a copy of the speech obtained by the Toronto Star, Bibeau said, “Women and girls will be at the heart of Canada’s international development efforts…. Canada needs to be present and engaged on the ground.  We cannot hide, avoid, or retreat.” However, she made no mention of FGM as a Canadian issue.

The visit received scant attention here; still, it’s a hopeful sign.  The time really has come for our Feminist Prime Minister and his team to take this fundamental human rights issue to heart: abroad, as part of our foreign aid policy, we need to start pulling our weight to defend the rights of girls at risk; in Canada, and, as an urgent first step, we need to identify the size of the problem, and immediately start putting effective programs in place.

So far, Canadian survivors have not found their voice, and until they do, others must be courageous enough to speak for them says Lalla-Maharajha. “This is a human rights issue and everyone has the right, and indeed the responsibility, to work on it, it is a widespread practice and there must be no further silence, even in Canada.”

Canada is a diverse society now, and all of our children, wherever their parents come from, deserve to be safe from harm, regardless of their culture or the colour of their skin.  Anything less diminishes us as a society of caring people who believe in the sanctity of human life and freedom from violence. Our feminist Prime Minster Justice Truedeau said “A Canadian who is Canadian is Canadian.” I would love to scream out and say “FGM survivor who is Canadian is Canadian and we must get resources for her.” We need them to have resources just like AA, diabetes, mental health, Cancer patients/survivors, to name a few.

By Flora Terah for Wakenya Canada

Flora is a Kenyan-Canadian women & girls rights defender

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